For Joseph D. and Jonathan Miceli, flexibility keeps the Miceli Dairy Products Co. growing

The Miceli Dairy Products Co. is flexible. It takes into account what it sees in the market and hears from customers, and it adjusts.

“You create a plan and you develop the plan, and if things change, you change your plan,” says CEO Joseph D. Miceli. “We’ve been good at that. We change with the times.”

That’s certainly true of the company that famously started when Joe’s father, John Miceli Sr., at age 15, sold Italian cheeses out of his Model-T pickup truck to families and corner stores. While today its products reach well beyond those Cleveland neighborhood streets, the need to adapt continues.

A few decades ago, the company recognized its market was changing, with a trend toward less at-home cooking. At the same time, it had to leave an increasing amount of business on the table because it was unable to meet customers’ capacity requirements.

Miceli Dairy also learned from long-standing relationships with its customers — some of which have spanned more than 60 years. It used those relationships to learn ways it could benefit from developing products that fit customer needs, but also how it could open customers’ eyes to product lines they might not have otherwise considered.

All of this has led to big changes. The company has doubled production and tripled its headcount. It has slimmed down, percentage-wise, its own brand within its mix of business as it has increased sales of its food ingredient lines — products sent to food producers, who use them in other products. It’s also led to significant changes to its facility on East 90th Street in Cleveland, with more changes around the corner.

Equipped for the market

“What’s been our saving grace over the years is we are not a small company, but small enough that we can adapt quickly to what’s changing,” says Jonathan Miceli, vice president of corporate administration at Miceli Dairy.

Addressing the changes required by customers buying its ingredients meant bringing on additional machines that could bag product in 30-pound bags — a big change from machines that packaged products in 15- or 32-ounce portions — as well as units and space to accommodate product cooling.

The company also added a substantial new dock and warehouse area that streamlined trips for outside shipping groups and customers that picked up product at the facility, completely changing the game logistics-wise.

It also built a new milk intake center that allowed two trucks to be unloaded at once, getting drivers in and out more efficiently and allowing it to receive the more than 20 million pounds of milk it uses each month cleanly and safely.

“That is an unsung component of that expansion,” Jonathan says. “It helped us greatly because, while technically it’s not producing an item for us, it’s the key to being able to produce more and more efficiently.”

That cumulative expansion — with some changes made in the 1990s and most implemented between 2010 and 2013 — dramatically drove up Miceli’s production capacity. Previously, the company was producing 40 million pounds of cheese per year; last year it had doubled that to 80 million pounds.

“The change in the volume has been dramatic,” Joe says. “And this will continue as we get into the next seven, eight years. We’re projecting a double by 2027 in our pounds, so the equipment is constantly changing.”

Listen and learn

Also helping to set Miceli Dairy apart is its flexibility in the types of cheese that can be made at its facility. It tailors its offerings to products its customers want that can be made successfully at a high quality, and that means working with customers to identify what is mutually beneficial.

Joe says a good example of that is organic mozzarella and ricotta cheeses that the company produces under its own label, as well as under private label for retail and food service companies.

“That was something that they brought to us and said, ‘Can Miceli’s go out and procure organic milk and make organic product?’ And we did,” Joe says. “A lot of the business we do on bid. So it’s paramount that you develop good people in your factory and you stay competitive and make a new cheese.”

But it does much more than take orders. To monitor consumer trends that might inform current or new lines of business, Miceli Dairy maintains a presence at major trade shows. It’s also keeping a finger on the consumer pulse by monitoring social media, checking to see how and where consumer interests sway.

Ten years ago, with the rise in popularity of cooking shows, the company saw that more restaurants were spotlighting ricotta, as well as mascarpone, on their menus.

“That kept us refocused in the sense of, OK, this is a cheese that’s going to be a staple of people’s kitchens forever, but they maybe take it for granted, or maybe people don’t realize that it’s in desserts and foods beside just lasagna,” Jonathan says. “It also showed us different applications of what chefs were doing. We try to adapt to that, spotlight that on our social media and change the conversation that way.”

Some of Miceli Dairy’s intelligence gathering involves simply visiting the supermarket to compare products and see what’s out there and trending.

“We keep an eye out if somebody’s trying something different with ricotta — a company we’ve never heard of,” Jonathan says. “You want to see what that is and what’s happening out there to try to respond and be ready for it, because the only constant is change and the only way to stay alive is to adapt to it.”

Miceli Dairy also presents its cheeses in new ways to its customers through its welcome center. A big part of the 2013 expansion, the welcome center is a test kitchen that features a wood-burning oven and seats up to 80 customers. The company invites prominent local chefs to work with the items that Miceli’s customers are buying to show them different applications. It also features items that they may not be buying to demonstrate how to use them.

“That’s part of how mascarpone has grown with us in a big way,” Jonathan says. “A lot of people perhaps don’t even realize what it is or how it’s used in so many things besides tiramisu, but that’s an item we’ve developed. We’ve won awards for our mascarpone, and it’s something that we’ve been able to bring to different places by showing them within that test kitchen.”

Family pride

In the 1990s, Miceli Dairy’s facilities fit on an acre and a half; today the campus is close to 25 acres. That has given the company the room it needed for both near-term and future expansion, the latter of which Joe expects will happen in the next five years. It has begun the process of replacing equipment to add production pounds, and will eventually add warehouses and more shredding capacity.

It’s all part of Miceli’s necessary evolution. Joe says when he started in the business in the 1960s and ’70s, there were hundreds of family businesses producing cheese. Now only a few remain.

“I think every company comes to that point, and not just in the cheese business,” Joe says. “You have to continue to expand to make your product competitively.”

In addition to the physical expansion, there’s also a people component. Jonathan says around 2003, Miceli Dairy had about 70 employees. Today it has more than 200, who continue to respond to the challenges of growth at all levels.

Jonathan says the company employs multiple generations of non-Miceli families who have been there for decades — people whose fathers or mothers worked there in the’ 70s and ’80s, whose children, nephews or cousins work there now. He says these folks have grown up in the company and many managers and leads, some two-thirds of them, started in an entry-level position.

“That expansion was done, for the most part, with huge backing of our employees,” Joe says. “You could say they’re our greatest assets. And in some cases, we have three generations of employees. Most of the hiring is still done from referrals from employees, so that’s a great strength. And when we expand again, it will be the same situation. You do it with your employees. There’s no question about it.”

Miceli-wise, the family has 12 members actively working in the business, which doesn’t account for those in the fourth generation who are only at the facility when they’re not in school. Part of the reason Miceli Dairy has survived — and continues to be a place where generations of the family choose to work — is pride.

“Being involved in your business is one of the greatest things that you can have because, in my opinion, it doesn’t make it ‘work,’” Joe says. “Never for one moment have I looked at it that way. It’s something that you have pride in and something you do on a day-by-day basis, and I’ve always enjoyed doing it. I hope the kids share that same attitude because it’s the attitude for success.”

Jonathan shares a similar sentiment.

“There is a great deal of pride that goes into our product that you know has come from your family and that has your family name on it,” Jonathan says. “And if you see that on the shelf, that’s why we don’t ever want to get away from that element of Miceli’s label at retail and that old-fashioned style. Because when you see that product on the shelf, you want to make sure it’s presented well. You want to make sure that it’s as good as you know it can be. There’s a great deal of pride in that.”

TAKEAWAYS

  • Listen, learn, adapt.
  • Big changes are risky, but worth it.
  • Pride carries through generations.